Smithson's institute

A floppy-haired kid in an army jacket and tired corduroys is stuck somewhere in the 24th row of an air-conditioned auditorium that smells like soiled socks of 300 teenagers. He's listening to a mind-numbing art history lecture — only because it fulfills his humanities prerequisite. His tailbone aches and the dry lands of the ancient ruins he's viewing are making his mouth water.

After 20 years teaching Pre-History to Modern Art to hungover students, the professor, who's thin, balding and bow-tied, has come to the realization that he's little more than a bean counter. He careens through his slide show on autopilot, attempting to cram architecture's greatest hits in all of four hours.

He spends an obscene amount of time on the Egyptians and Greeks before he gets to the Eiffel Tower and skyscrapers. But the floppy-haired kid in the 24th row is baffled by a handful of slides, the ones that survey bubbled spires, folded fans and bestial figures in Taoist architecture, ornate Islamic and Indian pillars, and magnificent portals and spires by Antonio Gaudi.

The kid sits up and begins to sketch.

Of all MOCAD's galleries, filled with art from the collection of Burt Aaron, one untitled drawing immediately caught my eye and called me over because it sparked that story about the kid, one I imagined about a young New Jersey artist named Robert Smithson.

I thought I knew the oeuvre of Smithson, a post-minimalist whose short career spanned about a decade before he died in a 1973 plane crash at age 35. As an earthwork artist, Smithson used land as his canvas. He built a 1,500-foot mud-and-rock "spiral jetty" into Utah's Great Salt Lake. He set mirrors down to blaze in the Mexican sun on the Yucatan trail. He carved huge semi-circles in remote regions of Holland.

Smithson also wrote. As a writer he was, for me, even more admirable. He could, in one essay, segue smoothly from the "energy drain" of the Second Law of Thermodynamics to the reasons why such sci-fi and horror flicks as The Thing and I Was a Teenage Werewolf matter to "profound" artists.

As an artist, Smithson's drawings are relatively well-known among collectors, but seeing the untitled ink on paper, from 1961, when the artist was just 23, is like visiting uncharted territory: It puts his career into perspective. His explorations were as much about science as they were art. This drawing is like a chaotic map of what mystics did with sticks and stone, before the modern era.

The drawing also presents similarities between styles usually segregated in the chapters of textbooks — as in, Islamic art, Chinese art, African art and everything else. In the same way you walk one of his earthworks — twisting into the circle of energy and losing sense of time and place — your eyes travel through the drawing, rendering historical context irrelevant.

With cockeyed crosses and frolicking Greek gods precariously balancing on pedestals, the drawing has the charm of a broken-down amuseument park attraction. Its liveliness also recalls such naive architecture as French postman Ferdinand Cheval's Palais Idéal. Cheval spent three decades, beginning in 1879, building his palace in Hauterives, France, using nothing but crude tools and stones he carted home in a wheelbarrow from the side of the road. He built his palace with calloused hands, returning the art-making experience back to the realm of the ritual.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts and culture editor. Send comments to [email protected]
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